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HS football playoffs: Quarterfinal previews
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Game of the week: Peach County at North Hall

Gainesville at Harris County

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Harris County Stadium, Cleveland

Radio: 1240-AM

Coaches: Gainesville, Bruce Miller; Harris County, Tommy Parks

Records: Gainesville (9-3, No. 2 Region 8-AAAAA); Harris County (8-4, No. 1 Region 1-AAAAA)

Winner plays: Allatoona/Whitewater winner

Key players: Gainesville, QB Deshaun Watson (6-3, 195 Jr.), S Fred Payne (5-11, 180 Sr.), LB Devan Stringer (5-10, 190 Jr.). Harris County, RB Esaias Chapman (5-9, 180 Jr.); TE/DE Jay Ellison (6-2, 292 Sr.); QB Justin Wright (6-1, 180 Sr.).

Outlook: Another postseason, another playoff run for Gainesville. A year after reaching the Class AAA state semifinals, the Red Elephants are just a game away from reaching the Class AAAAA final four. But Gainesville knows better than most teams it can’t afford to overlook any opponent, especially not at this stage of the season.

The Red Elephants, led by Watson’s staggering numbers, boast a prolific offense and have beaten top-notch opponents — as they did 61-42 last week over Region 7-AAAAA champs Kell. But Gainesville has also dropped three games, including an ugly one to a Loganville team that finished 4-6.

But even in defeat, few teams have had an answer for the Watson and the Big Red offense, which averages 44.9 points per game. The junior quarterback is a contender for the state Player of the Year, having accounted for 61 total touchdowns on the season.

Defensively, Gainesville needs to play like it did in the second half last week — when it held Kell to just seven points after trailing 35-21 at the half.

The top priority will be slowing down Chapman, who has run for 2,002yards and 19 touchdowns this season for Harris County. Wright is also a threat after passing for 1,536 yards so far this season.

Ellison, a college prospect with scholarship offers from multiple SEC and ACC schools, is a disruptive force from his stand-up defensive end position, and Miller said the Tigers’ secondary will also present problems.

Harris County, which had never won or hosted a playoff game in its 56-year history prior to this season, has also shown a dual nature, looking vulnerable during an 0-4 start but entering the game as region champs on an eight-game winning streak.

Prediction: GAINESVILLE. The Red Elephants have the weapons to turn this into a track meet — a race in which the Tigers will struggle to keep up.

Buford at Carver-Columbus

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Columbus Memorial Stadium, Columbus

Radio: 550-AM

Coaches: Buford, Jess Simpson; Carver-Columbus, Dell McGee

Records: Buford (9-3, No. 2 Region 7-AAA); Carver-Columbus (11-1, No. 1 Region 2-AAA)

Winner plays: Thomson/Cartersville winner

Key players: Buford, TE/DE Mikey Bart (6-3, 245 Sr.), TE/LB Korie Rogers (6-2, 210 Jr.), RB/DB Thomas Wilson (5-11, 180 Jr.). Carver-Columbus, QB Torrance McGee (5-11, 180 Jr.); WR Marqui Hawkins (6-2, 195 Sr.); DE Mekhi Brown (6-5, 200 So.).

Outlook: For two teams that had never played just three years ago, Buford and Carver-Columbus are getting awfully familiar with one another.

The teams met in the regular season in 2010 and ’11, then again in the state semifinals last season with Carver winning the first contest and the Wolves taking the last two.

Like most years, Buford relies on its running game and defense, though this year’s offense has featured more passing — especially lately. Quarterbacks Taylor Mitchell and Montgomery VanGorder have been equally effective, combining for 1,447 yards, 16 touchdowns and no interceptions on 145 attempts.

The Wolves have dealt with an injury-plagued offensive line most of the year, but the return of Dontravious Wilson should be a boost for the running game. Buford’s leading rusher with 918 yards and 12 touchdowns returned last week in a 13-0 win over North Oconee and ran for 148 yards after a two-game absence.

In the win over the Titans, the Wolves’ defense was especially stout, holding North Oconee to less than 150 yards of total offense. For the season, the unit — led by college prospects at every level — is giving up just 7.3 points and 178 yards of offense per game.

They’ll get a stiff challenge tonight from a balanced, athletic Tigers offense. Hawkins, a Florida recruit, is a dangerous weapon and McGee’s favorite target in the passing game, but Carver prefers to run. Up to four running backs will share carries and each is capable of breaking a big play, given a running lane.

The defense is equally talented, giving up just 12.4 points per game. The unit held down Peach County in the second half, allowing the Tigers to come away with a 26-17 win, and have been suffocating at times during Carver’s nine-game winning streak.

Prediction: BUFORD. The Wolves will need to limit penalties and turnovers. The winner of this game may well be the one that plays the cleanest game.

Fitzgerald at Jefferson

When: 7:30 tonight

Where: Memorial Stadium, Jefferson

Coaches: Fitzgerald, Jason Strickland; Jefferson, T McFerrin

Records: Fitzgerald (10-2, No. 2 Region 1-AA); Jefferson (11-1, No. 1 Region 8-AA)

Winner plays: Early County/Greater Atlanta Christian winner

Key players: Fitzgerald, QB Romarius Gaulden (5-11, 155 Jr.); RB Ron Swain (5-7, 175 Sr.); DB DJ Smith (5-8, 160 Sr.). Jefferson, QB Bryant Shirreffs (6-2, 215 Sr.), LB Wesley Simonton (6-0, 205 Sr.); RB Sammy Williams (5-5, 155 So.).

Outlook: Ever since a loss in the season opener to Commerce, Jefferson has found ways to dominate opponents in almost every aspect of the game, with their closest win a 27-21 victory over North Hall. Since then, the Dragons have won every game by at least four scores, including a 35-7 victory over Westminster in last week’s second-round matchup.

The Dragons’ versatile offense is led by Shirreffs, who recorded 691 yards and 11 touchdowns on 96 carries and 1,639 yards and 11 scores on 120 completions during the regular season. Last week against Westminster, Shirreffs tallied 248 yards and three scores on 15 carries and had another 81 yards and a score on six completions.

Shirreffs is complemented by Williams, who had 82 yards and a score on 13 rushing attempts last week. Tristen Jackson is yet another threat on the Jefferson offense, rushing for 27 yards on 11 carries against Westminster.

The running game is Jefferson’s strength, with the team totaling 400 rushing yards last Friday night. However, the Dragons have shown an ability to throw the ball from a spread formation if needed. This added capability could set them apart from a Fitzgerald team that also relies heavily on a ground game.

Simonton leads the Jefferson defense each week and had eight tackles against Westminster. The Dragons were able to hold Westminster to just 165 total yards in the victory.

Gaulden leads the Purple Hurricanes’ ground attack, but Swain is also a primary weapon on the Fitzgerald offense. Gaulden has 898 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing on the season and Swain has 10 scores and 822 yards.

Fitzgerald has five total players with over 300 rushing yards including Swain and Gaulden. Zeke Coley had 463 yards, Larry Stewart has 595, and Stepman Stevens has 364.

Stewart carried the team last week with 138 yards and two scores on 11 carries. Swain added two more scores with 22 yards on nine attempts.

Although the Purple Hurricanes have a plethora of players who can carry the ball well, Fitzgerald does not throw much, scoring just two passing touchdowns the entire season. The defense can, however, contain a passing game well thanks to Smith, who has 10 interceptions this season with two last week against Vidalia, one resulting in a touchdown.

Tonight’s game is the first-ever meeting between the two teams, and a win would send Jefferson to just their third-ever state semifinal appearance and their first since 1977, when the Dragons lost to Lincoln County in the state final.

Prediction: JEFFERSON. The Dragons’ versatility will give them the spark needed to defeat the Purple Hurricanes.

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